things to think about

today i am thinking about: (database) justice takes time
November 16, 2009, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am writing to you from the floor of the 2009 Blackbaud Conference for Non-Profits. I am here as the representative for my job; at my job, I am officially the development associate but I am functionally the database manager. I came into this job a year and a half ago, a promotion from the administrative assistant. My only Raiser’s Edge experience was restarting the server a couple of times when the previous database administrator — the membership coordinator, now departed — needed me to hit reset.

In the past year and a half we have gone from a database that did not function to a database that is actually almost reliable. We have a gift coding system that is functional, predictable, and straightforward. We can reconcile with Fiscal — our October numbers reconciled out of the box. We can pull reports predictably and we can trust the numbers as they appear; we can make mailing lists that routinely exclude the people they need to exclude; we have policies and procedures in place for a variety of challenges; we have consistent styles in our database; we can process heads of households correctly; we have set reports we use and refresh every single time so that we know we are looking at the same thing. In short, the past year and a half has been some kind of database revolution, and at the helm of it has been little old me, a week of RE Essentials, 113 calls to Blackbaud Support over the past year (I called to count!), Google, common sense, and occasional professional assistance from a consultant.

I am so proud of this work.

But here I am now, at this conference, this huge conference with thousands of people, and all I can see is how far we have to go. I am one of many people here who must be the only person here from my organization — I am only here, in fact, because I won a registration — and rather than seeing all the possibilities, at this moment I am challenged by how far we have to go. Our big goal for our next appeal is to segment our list by giving level more finely than major donor vs. house donor — our big goal for our next appeal (which I anticipate won’t be more than 1500 pieces or so) is to have an actual targeted and numeric ask. For those of you who don’t do much direct marketing, this is such a basic step that I am actually unsure I can find a metaphor to adequately explain how basic it is.

So I am trying to find all the sessions that talk about things like “how to build maintenance routines for the first time” or “how to use query to really kick ass at that mailing” — and that information is here. I wish there was a track that was “Raiser’s Edge for tiny organizations” or perhaps “Help! I inherited this busted-ass database! What do I do first? What do I do second?” I can’t use tricks in RE 7.91 because we can’t upgrade until we figure out how to get PCI compliant, which we are doing but it’s slow. We looked at using NetCommunity or Sphere for our online work but it was just so expensive — thousands of dollars more than the other competitors — that we decided to forgo it and are cobbling together something we can do ourselves out of Democracy in Action, which we STILL might drop in favor of CiviCRM. This is a cross between a user conference and a sales event, which I knew going in but it makes me wish there was more overt discussion of these concerns and what non-Blackbaud based solutions might actually make more sense for some organizations, especially organizations like mine.

Of course, at a conference put on by the scion of nonprofit donor databases, the thesis will be that more information is always better and more analysis is better and the best way is using our tools. Segment your list and the money will come in! Track what your clients are doing, add these actions to the telethon script, and watch your donations soar! This is all so obvious that it is almost without comment; I am just frustrated because I know I am not here able to sign a contract and start my brave new world of metric-driven, well-staffed, scientific fundraising.

It is funny, because I look around this conference floor at all of these INCREDIBLY ESSENTIAL! TIME SAVING! COST-EFFICIENT! services people want to sell me, and I can feel that little voice at me: how on earth can we possibly raise money if we are still not 100% sure we are capturing all of our major donors all the time? How on earth can we possibly raise money if we are writing an appeal letter with only one ask paragraph for everyone? If we don’t have action tracks? Data enrichment?

Oh right: the strength of the work. The people who we partner with to change the world. All these systems will make us better, but we have made it happen anyways.

In our grantmaking and in our other programs, we are such firm believers that change takes time — justice is incremental and changing hearts and minds is a fight we are in for the long haul. I really just want a database revolution right now. But we are doing the work of the database revolution — beginning to use analytics. Making those 113 phone calls. Sending emails. The exports and imports. This stuff takes time and I am trying to remember that rather than feel inadequate that we have not already reached database nirvana.

Maybe I will take it on myself to twitter a revolution and make a meetup for people who need that small shop talk. Maybe I will take copious notes and make an action plan, distill the theory of what we could do from the practice of all of these more expensive branded solutions. There is something to be said for being scrappy, after all; there is something to be said for the innovation of need.

2 Comments so far
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it sounds like you are looking for a meet up or conference of best (database / data / fundraising) practices for small non-profits. there is probably one sometime near you, look for something that’s not sponsored by blackbaud? maybe an AFP event. i would be more help if i didn’t work for an org that hosts their own internal FundDev best practices annual conf.

Comment by jess

also, yes. please. database revolution now. also, consistency is almost more important than a lot of bells & whistles.

Comment by jess

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